Last week’s column covered the indisputable “mockbusters”; animated features made for DVD release just to impersonate popular theatrical features. This week’s focuses on ripoff packaging; foreign animated theatrical features repackaged for the American video market to impersonate popular American theatrical features.
The clearest example is UAV Entertainment’s Kimba, the Lion Prince (January 1996), which looks like a blatant imitation of Disney’s The Lion King (June 1994). In this case, the video packager took animation that had been made thirty years earlier, the 1965 Japanese TV Kimba the White Lion, and packaged it misleadingly to look like an imitation. “It’s action and adventure as Kimba battles the evil hyenas and his father’s wicked brother!”, the jacket copy reads in imitation of The Lion King, but in this video and the earlier TV program there is never any suggestion that the brutal adult lion whom Kimba must defeat is a relative. The name of Osamu Tezuka, the 1965 Japanese producer, is removed from the credits.
Nobody produced an imitation of Pixar Studios’ 2012 Brave, but there were two attempts to repackage older foreign movies to look like imitations of Brave. One is a 2011 Indian animated feature (produced by Shemaroo Entertainment, a live-action studio) about a superheroine, Super K, which was repackaged as Kiara the Brave.
The other, which was only marketed in the U.K., is called Braver, in a video box that showed a Merida lookalike. But the video inside is a 2005 Canadian TV special originally titled A Fairy Tale Christmas, with a princess who is blonde and dressed in a pink flowing gown (like Merida’s mother was always trying to get her to wear). Disney has sent a cease & desist letter (the prelude to filing a lawsuit) to the British distributor, Brightspark Productions Ltd., over this lookalike. The Braver packaging is certainly a ripoff. But the 2005 Canadian TV animation was innocent.
Or was it? Who produced A Fairy Tale Christmas for Canadian TV in 2005? Brightspark Productions Ltd. Did Brightspark take advantage of its 2005 production to release its 2012 DVD ripoff of Brave? Yes, reported British newspaper The Argus on November 20, 2012. “Brighton-based animation firm Brightspark Productions was accused of marketing its DVD Braver to confuse customers into believing it was the Disney title Brave.
Brightspark’s film was originally released in 2005 under the title Fairy Tale Christmas, but the firm changed the name and packaging to a new design that bore striking similarities to the Disney blockbuster featuring the voices of Billy Connolly and Kelly MacDonald. Brightspark initially claimed that any similarities between the film – produced by a company with just five staff in an office behind Brighton bus station in Old Steine – and the Disney title were entirely accidental.
However the company reached an agreement with the animation giant in the High Court and has now agreed to destroy every remaining copy of four films that were similar to Disney hits. They also had to pay some of Disney’s legal costs. The four Brightspark DVDs were Braver, Tangled Up, The Frog Princess, and The Little Cars; the latter three being ripoff productions rather than just packaging.
A very similar example is the Canadian feature The Legend of Sarila. This was released theatrically in Québec (Canada) on March 1, 2013 (original release poster below, left), and several European and Arab countries during 2013 and 2014. It failed to get a significant American theatrical release, and was sold to Phase 4 Films, a company known for direct-to-DVD releases. Phase 4 changed its title to Frozen Land, and released it to DVD (see DVD package cover below, right) during November 2013, the same month that Disney released its theatrical feature Frozen, in packaging almost identical to Disney’s feature. Disney promptly filed a trademark infringement lawsuit, requesting the destruction of all copies of Phase 4’s Frozen Land. Phase 4 gave in to all Disney’s demands after less than a month.
Compare (below) Animals United: Adventure in Africa (released in June 2012) with DreamWorks’ Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (November 2008). This was an October 2010 German theatrical release as Konferenz der Tiere, based on the 1949 German children’s novel by Erich Kästner. Talking African animals, check. A drought that threatens all the animals, check. The discovery that Man has dammed their river, check. The animals unite to destroy the dam and release the water, check. So what else is new (that’s any good)?
After all these ripoffs, I want to acknowledge one DVD that is not a ripoff but may look like one to Americans. The 2012 Jock: The Hero Dog is a South African 2011 CGI adaptation, by Jock Animation (a production company formed especially to make this film), of a 1907 autobiographical adventure novel, Jock of the Bushveld by (Sir) Percy FitzPatrick, filmed in live-action twice, in 1986 and 1992. It may look like a thinly-rewritten imitation of a Jack London novel like The Call of the Wild, but it is a legitimate if loose adaptation of a classic South African best-seller that has never been out of print. I seriously doubt that the animals talk in the 1907 novel or the two live-action features.
An exceptionally confusing example is the two features The True Story of Puss ‘n Boots and Puss in Boots: A Furry Tail; lookalikes of DreamWorks Animation’s October 2011 Puss in Boots. The True Story of Puss ‘n Boots is genuinely original; it was loosely based on Perrault’s story, and was released in France in April 2009, two years before DreamWorks’ Puss in Boots. Puss in Boots: A Furry Tail is a true ripoff. It was “a sequel”, released directly to video also on October 11, 2011; and at 41 minutes, it is barely a feature going by the 40-minute definition. (Most audiences today expect a feature to be 60 minutes at a minimum.) There have been dozens if not hundreds of animated adaptations of Charles Perrault’s famous 1697 fairy tale from all around the world – Toei Animation in Tokyo’s logo is from its 1969 feature of the story – and The True Story of Puss ‘n Boots was released in April 2009 in France as La véritable histoire du Chat Botté, while the DreamWorks feature did not come out until October 2011. But DreamWorks’ Puss has been a popular favorite since Shrek 2 in 2004, and the American DVD release of The True Story was also in October 2011. Coincidence? I think not!
And finally, here is one that even fooled me! In my April 14, 2013 column, Animation That (Almost) Nobody Ever Heard Of, I lamented that the 2000 Danish A. Film feature, Help, I’m a Fish, which made the rounds of the international animation festivals in 2000-2001 to generally very good reviews – it won at least one award – had never come to America, even as a direct-to-DVD children’s movie.
David Gerstein corrected me: it did get an American DVD release in September 2006, but retitled A Fish Tale, and repackaged to look as much like DreamWorks Animation’s October 2004 Shark Tale as possible. “A. Film president Hans Perk, a personal friend, stated that the cover design was ‘the choice of the distributor, out of our hands’; quite a shame.” Belated thanks, David.